Tuesday, January 03, 2012

We’ve Wandered Many a Weary Foot

Another new year. It's just now sinking in. But not just any year -- a leap year, an election year, an Olympiad and the 30th anniversary of the release of "The Safety Dance."

This New Year's Eve was almost Lilly's first with friends, rather than her family, but the party fell through. Next year, I figure, they'll pull it off. Gathering for the new year is something youth should do.

Last summer, a high school friend of mine published this picture on Facebook, and she's kindly letting me put it here. It dates from December 31, 1981, during a gathering of high school friends a few years after we'd finished high school.

I'm actually in it -- barely. That's the edge of my leg, arm and head on the left. At least, I'm fairly certain that's me. Left to right from there, top: Tom, Catherine, George, Ellen, Lynn, Louis, Elysse, Tom, Debbie; bottom: Stephen, John, Nancy. I'm not sure who took the photo.

I'm glad I have an image of Stephen, the fellow with his tongue out, a pose he struck sometimes. Stephen Humble in full. He was born in December 1961, so had he lived, we would now both be 50.

That occurred to me a while ago, and when I had the thought I happened to be near Google, so I put his name in. There's a psychiatrist in Nashville by that name, and an English cricketer of that name who has a Wiki entry and a Facebook page, and a number of other references that probably don't point to the person pictured above. Deeper in, there are other references to other people, but I have to put in "Stephen Humble MIT" to get a few fleeting references to his name in dusty user group archives and academic papers. Maybe those are faint traces of the person I once knew.

So I thought he should have a better mention somewhere on line. Here, for instance. Stephen Humble was my friend in high school and a memorable character for those of us who knew him ('umble, he said it was pronounced, but not even the teachers said it with a silent h). He was exceptionally bright and insatiably curious about a lot of things, with a special facility for mathematics, the sciences and languages, at one point studying Turkish "for fun." He was the only male flautist in our high school band. He appreciated strange humor and weird incongruities, and had a vigorous laugh for someone with such a skinny frame. In his high school years to proved to be a freethinker and all around odd duck.

So naturally Stephen gravitated to my group of friends. Fit right in, he did. I know he caught a fair amount of flak from, let's say, less enlightened kids, though probably more so in junior high than high school. Too bad for them. They missed out on a lot by not listening to what he had to say.

He's the only one, besides former Sun-Times columnist Zay N. Smith, ever to appreciate my line, which I made up one day after Latin class: "I move that the subjunctive be abolished from the English language." Stephen laughed out loud at that, back when that was an actual activity rather than Internet shorthand. Of course, it's not really a laugh-out-loud joke; but as I said, Stephen was a highly literate oddball.

He went to MIT in the early '80s. I don't really know what he did for a living after that. He was a Unix expert, among other things. I remember once he told me how user-unfriendly Unix was, noting that when you made an entry mistake, the only reply the system would give you was a question mark. I think he spent some time in Europe, doing who knows what, but by the last time I saw him, in 1995, he was back in Cambridge, Mass. At that moment in his life, he had an enormous, Old Testament-prophet head of hair and beard.

He also had a boyfriend. That was a surprise. Not, ultimately, that he preferred men, but that he had a sex life at all. Knowledge of the carnal sort seemed to be one of the few kinds he wasn't interested in, but I suppose our high school assumptions were wrong, as they often were.

I don't know why he killed himself in 2002. How could I know that anyway, even if I'd seen him more often during the last 20 years of his life? Whatever troubled him must have been powerful, to subdue his love of learning. But I won't dwell on his end. All I know is that my life was more interesting for having known him, and so requiescat in pace, Stephen.

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At 12:51 PM, Blogger themiria said...

Thank your for posting this. Steve was my friend and roommate in Cambridge in the late 80's / early 90's. I did not know he had passed away, nor the circumstance. He was a character and a good guy, a kind person with a great sense of humor. Please feel free to contact me and I can share some stories.


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